Friday, August 6, 2010

Characters that Change, Characters that Don't

Characters That Take Jobs as Strippers....paint strippers between detective gigs

                                             by Robert W. Walker

Do you like your main POV characters to remain the same throughout a series? Or do you prefer for a main character to discover new facets of character as he/she goes and undergoes changes?

This topic came up recently among friends on a chat group and the preferences vary widely. Some of the longest running series appear to please on the basis of the character NOT changing a wit, a character that to me is 'static' as I prefer both to read about and to write about characters that evolve, grown, learn from their experiences, and become more adept at life as they go.

Apparently, there is room for both kinds of books and for both kinds of readers, which is fine with me.  There are, after all, many rivers to the ocean. However, as I have my prejudice and this is my blog day at Acme, I am going to discuss why I write characters who change and react differently to different stimuli at different times.

First I write books that aspire to a world that is as near mirror image of life as I can make it.  Painters differ in this as well as writers; many aspire to capture life as it appears, some so close it is like looking out a window, whereas many other artists paint terrific paintings that look nothing like real life. I can appreciate a Wyeth and I can appreciate a Van Gogh. But for me, in real life, people do change, they age, their surroundings/settings age as with peeling house paint, rusting cars, etc.

So here goes --

Let me be the first to ask who will be the "last writer standing" and the "last character remembered"?  With regard to those who do not want their favorite characters to change:  I think what you reallly mean is that you do not want to see them go against type - the type of character they in if suddenly the character you felt polite and intelligent has a breakdown at a dinner party or in a public place and suddenly acts OUT of character to the point of kickiing a dog or getting drunk or making a fool of herself, or decidiing out of the blue to become a Lesbian, etc. For me that is significantly different from saying a character should never change or grow or stretch or learn.

Allow me to play Devil's Advocate on this subject. For instance some say they love Watson and Holmes for who they are and never want to see a changed Holmes; great example for both sides of this argument because Sherlock did sink to drugs-- The Seven Percent Solution. And while Sherlock seems not to change or alter, this is an illusion; he has many moods and we see them all; in his down time, between cases, he is depressed to the point of being bipolar, as when on a case his mood swings entirely away. Does he change over time or even in the individual story?

We who write fiction start with a BEDROCK of character, which we challenge, throw rocks at, tease, place into hot and cold situations, test and test again and while the bedrock remains firm, our characters learn and grow and thank God. Perhaps in the real world people don't always change but I believe people capable of changing even as they hold onto their bedrock beliefs and gestalt. In every book that I have ever loved as a kid, there was a character in a coming of age, a loss of innocence, a stripping away of illusions and a realization on the part of the main character that appearances were seldom the same as reality. A good character grows in this sense, else you have a Woody Allen film (has Woody's main character ever learned anything?)

I PUT the book DOWN if there is no evidence of growth, learning, evolving. Look at our classics....the books which are penned by the "last writer standing" from his era -- Mark Twain's Huck Finn has completely changed from his appearance in Tom Sawyer. Victor Hugo's Hunchback changes and man what changes come in his Le Misrables. Our best writers from Hemingway to Faulkner may be world's apart stylistically but both authors are interested in point of view characters who are not going to be victims but who are going to take action when some train or other comes at them be it a phsyical triain or an emotional train. Ismael in Moby Dick - change, growth, going from ignorance to experience and know-how. Two Years Before the name your favorite.

Now perhaps in a mystery series Reacher is always Reacher and Repairman Jack is always Repairman Jack as the author knows these fully-realized characters require bedrock characterization, but the most memorable for me are characters who do go through crisis and heroes that do often fail, and leads who do make adjustments in their thinking and lifestyle as when a character is scarred both physically and mentally and begins to use a cane and feels self-doubt where it didn't exist before, and in a followup story/book, he regains his self-confidence and power and skills.

This interests me about real people; people who are down to nothing and somehow go from homelessness to riches for instance, or a maimed person who goes from a horrible loss of limbs for instance and overcomes this, or a person who has overcome a bad upbringing or a terrible environment. I want my main characters to be 'real life-like' heroes.

This is certainly the case with my main characters from Abe Stroud, archeologist to Lucas Stonecoat, Texas Cherokee detective, to Jessica Coran, FBI ME whose arc is rich with growth, ups, downs, swings, depressions, highs, lows, you name it. I left her in a happy state in the end because damn it, she deserved some rest and peace and harmony after all I had put her through. Plans are to now shatter that peace in a new book with Jess back on the trail of another 'monstrous' killer --of course as an ebook.

Rob Walker
Free opening chapters of Children of Salem and/or Titanic 2012 found at
Do leave a comment - would love to know your preference?  Do you like some characters to stay as is and others not?  Doesn't it depend on the execution of the story and what the author intends?


Debra St. John said...

I think a character needs to change and grow over time. Especially in a series. However, I think it's also important that the character maintain some of the initial qualities that attracted the reader to him/her in the first place.

Learning, growing experiences for the characters are a must. Complete personality changes are not so good.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Rob,

Like real people, characters need to change through a novel and especially if they're a series character. Kim Reynolds, psychic and academic librarian, is a sleuth who changes in both THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE DROWNING POOL. She reinvents herself once again in THE TRUTH SLEUTH which Five Star/Gale will publish under the mystery line in
May 2011.

Morgan Mandel said...

I have trouble writing series books, but maybe if I had the character change instead of stay static it would be easier for me to do one.

Morgan Mandel

N. R. Williams said...

I find it incredibly boring to read a book where the characters are stagnant, no change. In my fantasy series my heroine grows up emotionally, she must face her darkest fears and overcome them to claim the life she didn't realize she wanted in the beginning. I also explore the villains past to let the reader understand why he does, what he does. I'm certainly not the person I was when I was sixteen and my characters are not either.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

rob walker said...

Everyone should take a look at Robyn Carr's chapter on Building Bedrock Character Traits in fiction in her out of print, great book, Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction. Bedrock character shouldn't change, esp. not drastically. If she is a scientist at heart, she remains a scientist in the end, but that is not to say she has not changed fundamentally.


carl brookins said...

I am neutral on this subject except to note the following: if there is fundamental or abrupt change, there'd better be logical foundation and explanation as to why and how the change occurs. I won't accept a sort of casual pass--"I got older and decided I didn't like my life so I went and became a hermit," or something similar. But sometimes you discover elements of a character you didn't expect,which can be disturbing, or startling. It's one reason I never develop a backstory for my characters. That way I stay fresh and my readers are as surprised as I am. I also think characters can change significantly due to external forces, but again, there'd better be explanation or you are likely to experience a lot of readers heading for the door.

Terry Odell said...

The whole idea (for me) in writing a book is to take a character and push him/her to the limit. They have to grow. In When Danger Calls, the book begins with the heroine facing her challenges--taking care of an aging mother, balancing a budget when there's not enough money to go around, and being a single mom. By the end of the book, she's dealing with rescuing her daughter from terrorists. She has to find stuff deep within her in order to deal with those much higher stakes.

Will finding out she's capable of pointing a rifle at someone change her? Of course.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Dolores Gordon-Smith said...

It seems to be obvious to say that a character should change and grow and yet... Some of the best loved series characters stay more or less the same. Hercule Poriot, for instance, or Miss Marple. There are many examples, but those I know best are from British fiction. That, in a way, can be very comforting to a reader as someone they've liked in previous books take on a different challange. With a one-off story, it's different; the character more or less has to change and have learnt something by the end of the book. The best solution is, of course, when a writer can show their character changing over time. That, I think, was one of the big attractions about Harry Potter. What a fascinating topic!

jinx schwartz said...

One of the reasons I'd don't move my timeline very far (book number four takes place only two years after number one) is so my protagonist, Hetta Coffey, doesn't age. Her location and circumstances change with each book, but her character stays basically the same. She has learned, however, not to date criminals:) Well, unless they are out on parole. jinx schwartz

rob walker said...

Wow, some great input and ocmments here; thanks all. I will only add that I believe so much depends on the author's intention for his character(s) and his/her skill in executing those intentions.

I think it is a fascinating topic an most great how-to's deal well with bedrock characterization which can go either way - stay bedrock or go challenged.


Franklin Beaumont said...

Great topic. I think realism is the most important part of characterisation, and I think that in real life, people rarely change dramatically. The evolution of a person's character is a slow process, sometimes agonisingly slow, like a rock eroded by the sea. Even when something dramatic happens to a person, the intergration of that experience into who they are is gradual. I like characters with strong, well-defined perspectives; so when even the most subtle change occurs in them it is visible against the constant of who we know them to be.

Margot Justes said...

I think characters need to grow and develop, it's part of living and creating. They cannot remain the same, otherwise there is no desire to visit them again. But I agree the change must make sense and be reasonable.

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